Jun 30, 2015 | Leadership

Has this ever happened to you? You get into your car to drive home and soon become engrossed in your thoughts. You’re so absorbed that, when you pull into your driveway, you have no memory of the drive. When you turn off the ignition, you suddenly realize where you are and wonder, “Wait. How did I get here?”




That phenomenon is known as unconscious competence. It’s the fourth stage of learning attributed to Abraham Maslow (best known for his hierarchy of needs). You achieve unconscious competence when you’ve had so much practice learning a skill that it eventually becomes second nature. You can even multi-task while doing it.

I don’t advocate driving under temporary amnesia. I do, however, like to use this example I learned from my esteemed colleague, Dr. Tony Baron, to illustrate the stages we go through to move from awareness to action. Whether we want to master a new leadership skill, change our behavior, or even drive a change management project through an organization, here are the stages along the journey:

Stage One: Unconscious Incompetence

(Sticking with the car theme) for many of us, our first car ride was a trip home from the hospital. We didn’t know or care anything about the mechanics of how we got from Point A to Point B. We were blissfully unaware.

As a leader, however, unconscious incompetence is dangerous for ourselves and for those we lead. When we are unaware of our leadership deficits, our confidence exceeds our abilities, and we begin to make mistakes that can cause serious damage. The key to moving beyond this stage is to look inward. It begins with humbly accepting that there’s more to leadership than a fancy title. It requires us to admit, “I don’t know what I don’t know.”

Stage Two: Conscious Incompetence

As we grow from infanthood to toddlerhood, we begin to get curious about the world beyond our hands and feet. When we’re in the car, for example, we recognize that the person behind the wheel is controlling the car. We still don’t know how it all works, but we’re awakened by a new awareness.

Leaders at this stage are no longer blissfully unaware. We are now embarrassed, but hopeful. The key to moving beyond this stage is to look outward. Seek out people who model and the skills and behaviors that you need to achieve competence. Ask about their journey. Read books, watch videos, and mindfully apply what you learn in daily practice. Keep reminding yourself that, “I know what I don’t know,” and do the work to consistently improve.

Stage Three: Conscious Competence

Remember when you were first learning to drive? Seatbelt. Mirror. Foot. Hands. Eyes. Foot. Eyes. Hands. Foot. Foot! Foot!!! You had to be conscious of every move you made and the moves of the drivers around you. Hopefully, you made it through the first years without serious injury or damage. You were consciously competent.

At this stage in leadership, you finally know what you are doing. You’re looking both inward and outward to monitor your progress. As your efforts begin to pay off, your confidence builds and others begin to congratulate you on your progress. They may even begin to ask you for advice. You made it to the club of “I know, and it’s beginning to show!”

Stage Four: Unconscious Competence

Stage four drivers can start the car, wheel onto the road, listen to the radio, and get lost in thought, all while smoothly weaving in and out of traffic. They no longer walk through the mental checklist of how to drive. They just do it.

Unconsciously competent leaders summon what took them years to master. They tap into their expertise with ease and may even feel they’re making decisions more on feel rather than skill. They work in the zone, unencumbered by mental and physical mechanics. They “simply go because they know.” The funny thing about Stage Four is that it feels a lot like Stage One. The key to telling them apart is by looking at the results. They “simply go because they know.”

Having a leadership title does not automatically come with mastery of the skills and behaviors required to be effective. And awareness does not in and of itself change behavior. But with humility, patience, and practice, leaders can successfully move through the process of making meaningful change. Then stay on the growth curve by paving the way for others to achieve mastery.

Question: Are you trying to master a new skill or change your behavior? Where are you on the competence model and what can you do to move to the next stage?


Interested in receiving some one-on-one leadership coaching?
Check out our Leadership Development services or email
snasim@executiveexcellence.com directly to set-up a free 30 minute consultation.

Join me and Dr. Tony Baron at our next Re:Imagine Leadership Summit April 27 in San Diego! Success doesn’t happen by luck. It’s intentional. Without a leadership roadmap, your team will wander aimlessly through shifting priorities leaving them confused about the purpose of their jobs. Come to a one-day immersion in transformative leadership crafted to inspire and engage you.



Related Posts

5 TED Talks for Leaders Who are Lifelong Learners

5 TED Talks for Leaders Who are Lifelong Learners

I’m kicking off August a two-week vacation in Amsterdam, a city that effortlessly merges history with innovation, art with technology, and tradition with progress. As I wander through picturesque canals and vibrant streets, I find myself reflecting on the importance of lifelong learning, especially for leaders.

read more



Preferred method of contact:

*Required fields. By submitting this form you agree to receive emails from Center for Executive Excellence and can unsubscribe at any time.

Share This